For Future Remembrance

Celso Martins

Photography’s relationship with death goes back a long way. It is also very complex. For one, the photographic image in its early years gratified all sorts of fetishes, from physical deformities to bizarre occurrences. Death, and with it the physical evidence of the corpse, was part of this (almost) timeless desire for presence that photography, with its totemic character, responded to perfectly. Still today, pictures of lifeless faces, collected in the wake of massacres or natural disasters, are effective – and indeed are often included in photojournalism as a kind of criminal proof of the horrors caused by man or by the forces of nature. The face of a corpse is no ordinary image; it is not something we encounter on a daily basis. When viewers are confronted with the intimacy of a lifeless face, they can rarely resist the temptation to discover in it things that are not there. If the corpse seems to laugh or is serene, if it seems to be making fun of the living or to gaze out into the beyond, it is because the void – that absence of life – is not acceptable. For if the crudest sketches of a face in a drawing or painting can appear to speak, how could a real face possibly be a non-existence, an absence of life? Indeed, a dead face is very generous: it becomes a mirror or a blank page upon which anything can be written. Poised between the void and the horror, it refuses to admit any neutrality that could be ascribed to it.

Valter Vinagre’s photographs for the series Para do not show people, but clearly speak of them. They do so surreptitiously – as surreptitiously as the phenomenon they describe. This is a doleful homage to people that disappeared from the world of the living in a split second – perhaps because the road surface was uneven, because the bend was slanted in “the wrong direction”, because there was oil or rain on the road or because someone miscalculated how much time they would need to overtake or got distracted lighting up a cigarette or changing a CD… Because, because, because… the reasons are not important here. These pictures do not penetrate the immediate journalistic circuit of death. Rather, they speak of pain in the abstract, without abandoning it altogether.
Valter Vinagre’s pictures speak, then, of death. Roaming around the country’s highways, the photographer came across strange funerary manifestations along the sides of the roads – flowers, wreaths of flowers marking the sites of tragic accidents where people have lost their lives.
His pictures are not macabre, because they have carefully avoided the voyeurism of kitsch; but neither do they deny death (as is common in a highly mediatized society that has difficulties coming to terms with finalities) nor do they expose its remains for the morbid curiosity of the public at large.
The sight of the wreaths of flowers adorning Portuguese highways (and many more can be found across other continents, suggesting a strange universality) alerts us to two complementary facets of this phenomenon. One is well-known – the phenomenon of “undeclared civil war” that leads certain individuals to give rein to all kinds of primitive impulses in their driving, even in a supposedly modern country; the other has to do with the fact that this sinister reality is so engrained and ‘naturalized’ in our daily life that a specific rite and grieving process has been created around it.
Valter Vinagre’s pictures closely follow the principle of decontextualization that animates the ritual itself. They contain nothing to orient us geographically, no reference to any particular highway. These accidents could all have taken place on the IP5, the EN 125 or on any of the other main roads in Portugal that have become veritable deathtraps for travellers. Anything indicating a more specific identification or personal narrative is excluded from what we see.
These images, in a black and white that focuses the viewer’s attention and precludes any sentimental flights of fancy, concentrate on the shrines, the nature of the cult associated with them and their possible variations. There are small bunches of white flowers tied to trees, to road signs or placed on the ground near the road, sometimes, small crosses or shrines, forming a totality that is always discreet, and which, paradoxically, given its public character, seems reluctant to go beyond the circle of intimacy.
How should we understand this phenomenon? How can we respond to a manifestation of grief that is so spontaneous and so uncodified that it does not even have a name? How do we interpret a form of mourning that takes place right there in this no man’s land, at the site of the loss, rather than in the cemeteries where the victims rest alongside the other dead, whatever the cause?

In a well-known work (Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 1994), the French ethnologist Marc Augé discusses the concept of the non-place, citing airports, train stations and motorways as places where identity is suspended and fragile. It is tempting to read this phenomenon in the light of Augé’s theory.
Manifestations of grief at Portuguese roadsides leave strange traces of humanity in places where it is least expected. Travelling at high speed thus ceases to be an arid state of limbo between two points (a “moving towards”, as the Portuguese name of the series suggests) but instead becomes a visitable place, inhabited by an idea of the sacred, which captures and recontextualises death in a different scenario to that codified by religion and custom. This displacement (which does not necessarily imply a distortion of the nature of the cult) probably has historical antecedents in religious manifestations connected to the various pilgrimage routes that have crisscrossed Christendom since the Middle Ages; it effectively updates the notion that even the most inhospitable path or the most modern highway may inscribe a relationship with the transcendant. This relationship is closely bound up with the notion of identity, as if the cultural map that forms each person’s individual trajectory is never undone, not even under the most adverse conditions.
These pictures, in their disaffected black and white, bring a physical and spatial strangeness to these manifestations. Indeed, the ceremonies are presented within the socioeconomic landscape, formatted by the effective circulation of people and goods, like lichens of a traumatized spirituality, almost clandestine in their existence, as well as in their infinite mediatic amplification.
But these images also raise another question concerning the photographic act itself. If the invention of photography was a revolutionary and radical technological acquisition, then anything meta-photographic seems to precede the historical appearance of the photograph.
In their relationship with death, the rituals inscribed in these pictures are themselves intensely ‘photographic’. If, as Roland Barthes and Phillipe Dubois suggested, photography signifies a decisive rupture between a present (“this is”) and a past (“this was”), petrifying a moment destined to disappear, then these rituals affirm an intense desire to crystallise the event of death which, to all extents and purposes, has parallels in the photographic act itself.
Roadside death cults are attempts to stem the inevitability of events, ironically placed at sites of intense movement and high speed. In photographing them, Vinagre is photographing the very desire for photographic crystallization that is already present in these cerimonials.
Isolating each particular instance in close-ups that decontextualise them from any landscape or human referent, Vinagre’s images are like photographs of photographs. In them, he has exactly captured the mourners’ traumatic desire to stop the flow of time and install memory as the subject of a perpetual present.

Celso Martins
Lisbon, November 2006
The title of this series in Portuguese has a number of different dimensions of meaning. On the primary level, it means “Stop!”, which is clearly appropriate in the context of roadside accidents. However, it is also a preposition, used to express both the notion of ‘for’ (i.e. a homage or dedication) and ‘to’ (i.e. movement towards a destination). All of these meanings are activated here.